Tear­ful re­u­nion af­ter 56 years

Harefield Gazette - - NEWS - By Mike Lock­ley

IN an emo­tional mo­ment Phyl­lis Whit­sell came face-to-face with the nun whose love helped her over­come dark days in an or­phan­age.

The tears flowed when they brought out a walk­ing aid for 98-yearold Sis­ter Teresa. She said: “You can push me Phyl­lis, as I pushed you when you were a baby.”

It has been 56 years since the pair last met. And for Phyl­lis, now 60, it was an­other in­cred­i­ble twist in a jour­ney that be­gan when she was left at the Fa­ther Hud­son Homes or­phan­age in Coleshill.

Phyl­lis, a nurse, had al­ready tracked down her real mother – and cared for the al­co­holic for nine years. In that time she never re­vealed to the woman, known in Bal­sall Heath’s red light dis­trict as Tip­per­ary Mary, that she was her daugh­ter. Phyl­lis has writ­ten a book with the help of Uxbridge Gazette colum­nist and friend Bar­bara Fisher, about the mov­ing story called Find­ing Tip­per­ary Mary.

Now she has tracked down the nun who showed her so much af­fec­tion dur­ing the four years she was at the home. She was re­united with Sis­ter Teresa at St Paul’s Con­vent, in Birm­ing­ham. Iron­i­cally, Phyl­lis, who cares for de­men­tia pa­tient, has for years worked within yards of the con­vent.

“She was so, so kind,” said Phyl­lis. “Some of the nuns were strict, but she had such a gen­tle side. She was very moth­erly. She had that moth­erly in­stinct.”

Phyl­lis’ mem­o­ries of the nun with a heart of gold are crys­tal clear. Sis­ter Teresa gave her a hand­ker­chief that be­came a com­fort-blan­ket for the vul­ner­a­ble in­fant. She re­mem­bers the tears when it was lost. “Even now I have to sleep with a han­kie un­der my pil­low,” she said.

At their re­u­nion, Sis­ter Teresa promised to make her a new one.

“She would hold my hand,” said Phyl­lis, her voice break­ing, “I re­mem­ber how soft her hands were. It was so lovely to have this nun. As an or­phan, you cling onto things other chil­dren take for granted. She told me she was al­ways be­ing told off by Mother Su­pe­rior for be­ing too soft with the chil­dren, but chil­dren only need love. If it was not for Sis­ter Teresa, I would not have en­joyed the or­phan­age be­cause it could be so reg­i­mented, but she took a shine to me.”

The meet­ing was ar­ranged by a nun who had read Phyl­lis’ book. An in­vi­ta­tion to visit the con­vent ar­rived at Phyl­lis’ home on her 60th birth­day. “She is only a dot, but bright as a but­ton,” said the au­thor. “She sat me down and said she looked af­ter lots of chil­dren, but some stood out. She took a shine to me.”

Phyl­lis’ story is the stuff of tear-jerk­ing big screen pro­duc­tions. She was adopted at the age of four and told through­out her child­hood that her bi­o­log­i­cal mother Brid­get Ryan had died of TB.

It was a fab­ri­cated story de­signed to shield the lit­tle girl from the truth. Brid­get, known by the street-name Tip­per­ary Mary, was a lo­cal nui­sance and ad­dicted to booze.

And she was very much alive.

“I had al­ways been told my par­ents were dead af­ter con­tract­ing TB,” says Phyl­lis. “I was in­structed never to men­tion to any­one that I was adopted. I did con­fide in one school friend, but that re­sulted in threats of black­mail.

“It re­in­forced the idea that be­ing adopted was shame­ful. Yet, still, through­out my child­hood I was con­vinced, some­how, that my mother was alive. I told my­self that one day, when I was old enough, I would track her down.”

Phyl­lis mar­ried, had chil­dren and found work at Dud­ley Road Hos­pi­tal, Birm­ing­ham, but she was al­ways driven by a de­sire to trace her mum. In the late 1970s, she be­gan the search in earnest.

“Af­ter I was coun­selled by a so­cial worker – to pre­pare me for what I might find – I was able to get my orig­i­nal birth cer­tifi­cate from Som­er­set House,” said Phyl­lis.

“My next port of call was the or­phan­age in Coleshill where I had been left as a baby. To my ut­ter amaze­ment, there was a mem­ber of staff who had been there since I was ad­mit­ted at the age of eight months.

“She was re­luc­tant to tell me much about my mother but it was clear that she dis­ap­proved of her. I had no idea why – I thought it was just be­cause she had handed me over to the or­phan­age at such a young age.

“The more she tried to put me off, the more cu­ri­ous I be­came. Lit­tle did I know what I was go­ing to un­cover when I fol­lowed the trail with the help of so­cial work­ers, pro­ba­tion of­fi­cers and through other of­fi­cial chan­nels.

“Even­tu­ally, I slipped un­der the radar and did my own de­tec­tive work un­til one day I found my­self – at long last – on Tip­per­ary Mary’s doorstep.”

The woman was a far cry from the pic­ture of a warm, gen­tle mother Phyl­lis had painted in her mind. Brid­get was a chronic al­co­holic, in bad phys­i­cal shape, men­tally un­sta­ble and abu­sive.

But there be­gan the most re­mark­able love story. “My job as a nurse pro­tected me,” said Phyl­lis. “My uni­form pro­tected me. My train­ing made we warm to her vul­ner­a­bil­ity and I could hide behind that role.

“Although my heart went out to the dam­aged woman who turned out to be my mother, I knew I could never al­low her to dis­rupt my own fam­ily.

“But nor could I turn my back on her. She wasn’t the fairy­tale fig­ure I had imag­ined, but she was still my mother.”

Phyl­lis made an in­cred­i­ble de­ci­sion.

“By then I was a dis­trict nurse,” she ex­plained. “So I just – un­of­fi­cially – added her to my rounds.

“I took her clean clothes, bathed her wounds and got her to talk about the five chil­dren she had given away, in­clud­ing me. The day she spoke af­fec­tion­ately of ‘lit­tle Phyl­lis’ and told me my birth date ac­cu­rately was the best, and the worst, day of my life.”

Phyl­lis cared for her mother from 1981 to 1990 with­out once re­veal­ing she was the lit­tle girl Brid­get had given away all those years ago.

It was only when Brid­get died at the age of 74 that the ties that bound them were fi­nally sev­ered.

Find­ing Tip­per­ary Mary, Al­ready out in hard­back, the new pa­per­back edi­tion will be pub­lished on July 28. Pre-or­der be­fore then to re­ceive free P&P in the UK from: http://www. mir­ror­col­lec­tion.co.uk/ prod­ucts/details/search_ re­sults/mary/

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